Majestic Massif: Climbing Kilimanjaro
by CLAIRE WALTER
The highest point in Africa, Kilimanjaro draws adventurers from around the world, and also literature buffs captivated with the images spun by Ernest Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro and Karen Blixen’s tales recalling when “I had a farm in Africa.” More recently, it has attracted such glamorous climbers, social and otherwise, as Joan Lunden and Martha Stewart.
Located in northern Tanzania at the border with Kenya, Kili dominates the landscape as only a true giant can. This freestanding massif looms above the African plain, a stunning oval with an east-west orientation that is 50 miles wide at the base. The highest of its three peaks, the domelike Kibo summit, is topped by a knob called Uhuru, a literally breathtaking 19,330 feet above sea level. Though close to the equator, Kili is crowned by glaciers and eternal snowfields.
A Serious Ascent
This ruggedly beautiful volcano is the centerpiece of mnemonic Kilimanjaro National Park, which sets the rules — the main one being that no one is permitted just to heft pack and hike up the mountain. A licensed guide is mandatory, and with the guide come assistant guides, a cook, perhaps an assistant cook, and a fleet of porters. U.S. tour operators offering Kili climbs generally hire a local guide service to organize the climb and assemble a crew.
Our head guide was a former Kili park ranger, Daniel Fundy, whose knowledge of the abundant flora, sparse fauna and dramatic topography is epic. For a group of seven, he recruited his cousins August and Vincent as assistant guides and Balthazar as cook. All are veterans of many Kili climbs, and all spoke enough English to communicate.
No Wimps Allowed
Balthazar’s porters were strong men who climbed quickly, carrying prodigious loads on their heads and dangling strong cigarettes from their mouths. The practice is for clients and guides to interact, but for porters to keep to themselves. They enabled us to carry only daypacks, but we never learned their names, nor were we encouraged to.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is an African adventure and a physical challenge. The trek traverses several climatic zones, from lush forest to high alpine desert where nothing grows. The main hiking routes (and several combinations) thread up the mountain, generally from the south. Each is named for the nearest village to the gate.
Nicknamed the “tourist route,” the Marangu is the easternmost trail, used by some 90 percent of the trekkers who attempt Kili. Accommodations are in four “huts” — bunkhouses, really — each a day’s hike apart. Any reasonably fit person has a good shot at succeeding on this route.
Hard-core hikers often dismiss Marangu as “a long slog,” and indeed, it is a well-trod trail all the way. People in good shape and not averse to camping may prefer one of the other options.
Our group elected the Machame route, which is not only more difficult, but also more scenic. We assembled at the Machame Gate, located southwest of Kili at about 6,000 feet — higher than Denver.
In contrast to the stream of trekkers we would have encountered on Marangu, we met no one on Machame. (The Shira, Umbwe and Mweka routes, we were told, are similarly empty and dramatically beautiful.)
A Dynamic Route
While the Marangu route contains some spectacular stretches broken up by foot-wearying miles of trekking across a vast, rock-strewn desert, Machame is far steeper, which means that hikers move from one climatic zone to another more quickly. Tedium never has a chance to set in.
We walked up through the rain forest in a matter of hours, and spent part of a morning ascending through lacy shadows cast by huge heathers. Our route wound through some of the most unique vegetation on earth. Resembling fat palm trunks topped with pineapple leaves, giant groundsels are indigenous only to Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya. The native giant lobelias looked more like succulents than those sweet little blossoms we know back home.
As we climbed up through the thinning trees at timberline, the vast Kibo peak, our goal, was in our faces. The highest of Kili’s three summits, it dominates the skyline. It imposed itself on us with every step, drawing us with its beauty and power.
Moving up the mountain, we made three camps: near 10,000 feet at the start of the “heather zone”; then well above timberline at roughly 12,500 feet; and finally at about 15,000 feet in a high mountain desert.
Battling the Elements
No matter which track they select, some people get socked by altitude sickness — headache, severe shortness of breath, nausea. Neither age, fitness level nor mountaineering experience at lower elevations guarantees immunity. Diomox is a currently popular altitude-sickness prevention; it is available by prescription. And since several guides accompany groups, someone is always available to accompany an ailing trekker to a lower elevation, where recovery is generally quick and automatic.
Acclimatization is no guarantee of reaching the summit, but a rest day can help. Therefore, instead of climbing on the third day, we walked eight nearly flat miles on the starkly beautiful Shira Plateau, located at just over 12,000 feet.
As we returned to camp, we looked directly at the Western Breach, the truly daunting part of our climb and Kili’s most challenging non-technical section. We would ascend this 3,500-foot-high wall in the dark, negotiating rockbands, scree-filled chutes, and snowfields crusty and frozen in the cold night.
This last overnight stop before the summit is no place to linger. Cool and windy even in the height of day, it gets bitterly cold as soon as the sun begins to set. But our night was short, since we were awakened shortly after midnight by our guides. We downed a quick hot “breakfast” of porridge, or tea and biscuits, and set off.
The climb was demanding, but in the eerie brilliance of the cloudless night, I felt as if I could have kept going right up as far as that shining full moon. Climbing the Western Breach to the crater rim is such an accomplishment that the additional 330 feet to the Uhuru summit no longer seemed like a goal but instead felt anti-climactic.
Seeing dawn breaking over the vast African plain and fanning warm light across mighty Kili is one of the world’s most dramatic and moving sights. Nonetheless, few linger at the summit. It’s frigid and windswept, even in bright sunlight, and down is still a long way.
A few of us — curious about the way most people try for Kili — descended via the more popular Marangu Route. We saw and felt, and in a certain way also shared, the “normal” way of climbing Africa’s highest mountain.
A Natural Billboard
The upper part of the track crossed a wasteland so empty, trekkers have whimsically arranged trailside rocks to form initials or names. We often gazed at the scenery, for from here, Kili’s sheer mass became evident.
Horombo Hu, a cluster of A-frame buildings at about 12,000 feet, is customarily the only overnight stop on the descent. From this high-altitude desert, we headed down through a moorland zone and tree-free heath to a montane forest with spectacular wildflowers. The final day, descending from Horombo past Mandara Hut to the Marangu gate, seemed like a breeze.
For most people who do it, climbing Kili is one of life’s epic accomplishments, experienced with a mixture of elation, exhaustion and pride. And so it was for us. We were thrilled by what we had seen. We were weary from having done it. And we were just plain proud of having set such a lofty goal in so exotic a place ... and having accomplished it.
West Africa has two rainy and two dry seasons a year. Climbs are, of course, most common and comfortable during the latter, generally June to September and December to February. Trekkers need to be in good physical condition, equipped with comfortable, well-broken-in hiking boots, warm clothing which can be layered, and perhaps sleeping bags.
Most North American tour operators specializing in East Africa safaris offer Kili as an add-on. We booked with a mountain specialist called Condor Adventures (Tel: 800-729-1262; Fax: (303) 456-1380), which considers the safari portion to be the add-on.
For information about additional tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Tanzania — Mountaineering.”